By: Fr. James Gross
Two weeks ago we heard the Gospel reading of a conversation Jesus had with a Samaritan woman. She came to a well in search of water to quench her thirst, but found hope that the Holy Spirit, the Living Water, would satisfy her spiritual thirst as well, and she became a witness to Christ for her whole town. Then last Sunday we heard the Gospel reading of Jesus healing a man born blind. Although the Pharisees had their physical sight, they would not let go of their blindness residing in their arrogance and stubbornness of heart. On the other hand, the healed man testified to the divine power at work in Jesus and became his follower.
Today we have a situation more tragic than thirst or blindness—death. The siblings of Lazarus, Martha, and Mary are as close to Christ as anyone besides our Blessed Mother and the Apostles. He can be as close to any of us as he was to these dear friends. When word comes to him that Lazarus is ill and near death, Jesus decides to go to Bethany, a town within a region where danger certainly awaits him. And when he and his disciples arrive, what we see is an effusive outpouring not only of his divinity, but also of his humanity.
What am I referring to when I speak of Jesus’ humanity on display? Consider how he comforted Mary and Martha, and how he wept at Lazarus’ grave. In addition, twice we hear that Jesus was “perturbed.” To me, that verb denotes something almost trivial, like the pesky fly that lands on the same spot on your neck over and over. I thought to myself, “St. John must not mean a simple annoyance, does he?” It turns out that the Greek verb translated here as “perturbed” is in several other Gospel verses translated “moved with pity.” The literal meaning of the word is physical, as though one’s insides were being twisted around. What Jesus experienced was a visceral, gut-wrenching emotional anguish. That paints quite a different picture, in my humble opinion.
After performing the miracle, Jesus asks people to remove the confining cloth wrappings from Lazarus’ body. This symbolizes that reviving the man is not enough. One needs to have the freedom that comes with life in the Holy Spirit in order to live to the full.
We don’t know any personal details about Lazarus other than his friendship with the Lord, but Lazarus serves as a metaphor for how Christ deals with his brothers and sisters by means of His Body, the Church. It’s not a stretch to say that a great many people in our world are more spiritually dead than alive. I don’t need to list a litany of sexual or other moral faults to make this claim. We on the parish staff are thinking primarily of how we think of and carry out a relationship with God every day, and how we make our choices with respect to that relationship. Our hearts go out to those who have been baptized and confirmed—sacramentalized, if you will—but have not really encountered God in a meaningful and personal way. Those indelible marks of grace are present, but glowing as faint embers waiting for the Holy Spirit to fan them into flame. These brothers and sisters look normal on the outside, but spiritually are more dead than alive.
We are trying to be intentional and responsive about how we work with these folks. We don’t mean to blast them with angry diatribes and chase them away, leaving the false impression that those of us in the pews have everything under complete control. Neither can we be silent in the face of great societal evils, as though such acts have no consequences. A faithful Christian accepts the deposit of faith and clings to the hard truths therein, even if most people we know disagree. So what’s the proper course when encountering the “more dead than alive?”
The answer, I believe, lies in invitation. Constantly we invite them to come home and welcome them with open arms, because we ourselves know what Jesus does for us. The recent Jubilee Year of Mercy illustrated this beautifully. How much more can our parishes accomplish when more and more of her members reach out in the community in this humble fashion? Someone I was chatting with about this very topic put it this way; we ought to be able to say, “I care enough to care about you when you don’t care enough.” That’s not coming from a place of superiority, but of empathy and companionship.
You folks find yourselves in a good position to share with others what God has given you. That’s not to say that it is easy, but the opportunities are ample. Maybe half a century ago, everyone we knew belonged somewhere—they were Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, et cetera. Today it’s not the same. The percentage of young adults in Cass County who self-identify as religiously unaffiliated is skyrocketing. They’re our coworkers and neighbors. We’re not saying they’re creepy or all immersed in witchcraft or the occult. But Christ thirsts for them just as for us! How sad if no one ever brings this to their attention.
Fr. Courtright and I decided that today is a good day for us to share with you a great experience that we as priests are privileged to have. Once in a great while, someone comes into the confessional who hasn’t been there in a very long time. Sometimes it’s a longer period of time than I had been alive. When that man or woman reveals that fact and then bears his or heart before God, the last thing on earth I want to do is give them a hard time. Rather, I say something like this: “Praise God that you are here right now. The angels in heaven rejoice when anyone of us repents of our sins, and all the more so now. Neither you nor I can change what you did in the past. What we can do is look at the future and make a new start with the Holy Spirit’s help.”
Time and time again, Jesus meets people who are more dead than alive, people who thought God’s plan for them had long ago passed them by. What can we do together to encourage them to step out of the grave and into the light of God’s grace?